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One drink, 1,000 tastes: How tea has conquered the world
Few drinks offer the variety of flavors and distinctive cultural practices as tea. Here are the best ways to ingest this ancient beverage
Humanity's obsession with tea all started in 2737 BC when, according to legend, tea leaves blew into Chinese Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water.
Now, tea has morphed from that fortuitous, bitter brew into a designed beverage of a thousand forms.
Here are some of the best places to drink it.
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As the world’s biggest exporter of tea, you've probably already drunk the stuff grown in China's vast rural swathes of green, even if you've never visited.
Green tea is the most common variety, while flower tea (a mix of green tea and flower petals) is the prettiest, and the lightly fermented oolong variety is highly prized.
Tea is drunk with most meals and teahouses are popular meeting places -- one of the most renowned is the Huxinting Teahouse built in 1784 in Shanghai with its renowned zigzag bridge, which protects the structure from evil spirits that, so the story goes, can’t turn corners.
Huxinting Teahouse, 257 Yu Yuan Lu, Yu Gardens and Bazaar, Old City, +86 (0)21 6355 8270
2. Sri Lanka
Colombo hosts the world’s largest weekly tea auction with around 200 companies bidding against each other for the rights to tons of these little green leaves.
Such is tea's influence on this nation that the Colombo Hilton offers a tea-inspired cocktail.
Hunas Falls Resort near Kandy in Sri Lanka is renowned for its tea-inspired cuisine. Smoke a duck breast or encrust a piece of tuna with tea leaves, or marble some eggs.
Hilton Colombo, 2 Sir Chittampalam A Gardiner Mw, Colombo, Sri Lanka, +94 11 249 2492, www.hilton.com
Hunas Falls, Elkaduwa (near Kandy) 21012, Sri Lanka; www.hunasfalls.com
Kenyans pride themselves on their top quality black tea, free of chemicals, pests and disease. Grown along the equator, Kenyan tea bushes receive 12 hours of sunlight per day year-round and since only the top leaves and buds are picked, their tea has high levels of antioxidants.
The Mombasa Tea Auction is the second largest in the world and exports to Egypt, Britain, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, and even India and China.
Guided tours roam through the vast plantations such as the Kericho Tea Estate, hunting out not lions and cheetahs, but fine, thirst-quenching brews.
Zuru Africa Safaris; www.zuruafricasafaris.com
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Unique to the land of sumo wrestlers, geishas and sushi, is the highly prized matcha tea. Grown slowly in the shade to give it its bright green color, matcha is then laboriously ground by hand into a fine powder.
Water which has boiled and cooled is poured over the powder and mixed into a frothy and bright green drink. Sometimes sweets accompany the tea and much bowing, kneeling, hand gesturing, and eye diverting are part of the traditional tea ceremonies, although most tea houses allow for a more relaxed mode of sipping.
Take tea with a monk at Chosho-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Chiba prefecture dating back to the 13th century. It's about 10 minutes' walk from Itako train station; overnight stays can also be arranged.
12-17 Zaimokuza 2-chome,Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0013, Japan
The theatrical preparation of masala chai is nothing compared to its taste. There are many variations but usually milk is spiced with cinnamon, cardamom pods, cloves, ginger and pepper and boiled with water and strong black tea which has already been brewed.
Of course you can cheat and use a frothing device from a cappuccino machine, or try the traditional method of aerating it by pouring the tea back and forth from a great height between two cups to make it frothy. Add sugar to taste.
Chai is widely available on the streets but Mumbai's Tea Centre comes highly recommended.
Tea Centre, Resham Bhavan, 78 Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate; Mumbai, +91 (0)22 2281 9142
Oh, how the Brits love their tea. Favoring black teas served in a teapot, milk and sugar can be added, or the brew can be taken with a slice of lemon.
Devonshire tea is often a mini meal including scones, clotted cream and jam, naturally served with a pot of your favorite brew.
So zealous are they about their cream tea, on November 17, 2011, The English Cream Tea Company won a Guinness World Record for the largest English Cream Tea event -- 334 people.
Fingle Bridge Inn, Drewsteignton, Devon; +44 (0) 1647 281 287; www.finglebridgeinn.com
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Tea has been drunk in Russia since the mid-1600s when Chinese traders made the treacherous 17,000-kilometer journey across the inhospitable terrain.
Since then, they have developed their own brewing style by using elaborate metal and oval teapots with long spouts called samovars. Favoring dark loose tea leaves, sometimes with fruit or herbal flavors, an intense brew is made in another pot.
A small quantity is poured into the cup and is then diluted with water from the samovar according to your taste. The Perlov Tea House has been selling tea for more than a century.
Perlov Tea House, Myasnitskaya street, Moscow, Russia
8. Tibet Autonomous Region, China
The lactose intolerant should look away. Locals have developed their own unique blend -- high quality tea leaves are brewed for hours and then poured into a cylinder with salt and yak butter.
Given the region's harsh climate the locals down cup after cup of butter tea, also known as po cha, which is great if you’re accustomed to it. Foreigners may struggle with the taste as the custom is to always keep the bowl full to the rim.
Politely sipping the brew could result in a never-ending drink. Nonetheless, it’s very warming due to the number of calories, keeps chapped lips at bay and apparently helps with altitude sickness. Failing a personal invitation into a nomad’s home, the Pentoc Tibetan Restaurant is the next best thing.
Pentoc Tibetan Guesthouse & Restaurant, East Zang Yi Yuan Road (off Beijing East Rd), Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China
Long before Australia went all gourmet with teas and Zen-inspired flavors from its Asian neighbors, Bushells Tea was the go-to tea brand. With milk and sugar and served in a mug instead of a cup and saucer, Aussies are quite partial to dunking a biscuit over a story or two.
Bushells can be found in almost any Australian supermarket, no matter how remote, or have it served in Top Tea House.
Top Tea House, 5 Hunter St., Sydney; www.toptea.com.au
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First published January 2012, updated November 2012